Preparing for Competitive Exams

an hour, 1 link


Updated June 8, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Admitted by Soundarya Balasubramani. Written by an Ivy League graduate from India, this is the proven guide for students worldwide looking to pursue undergraduate or graduate study abroad in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Purchase for instant access to the guide and other exclusive resources—including sample SOPs, sample resumes, scholarship lists, and a private community with other readers.

Dr. Quentin D. Atkinson,* a professor at the School of Psychology in the University of Auckland, New Zealand, posited an interesting theory in 2011 that the origin of modern human language occurred in Africa, and then percolated to the rest of the world slowly alongside human migration.* He used statistical models to look at the number of phonemes across 504 languages in the world.

Think of a phoneme as the smallest unit of sound in a word that distinguishes it from another. Pat is different from cat because the phoneme p replaces c.

He found that some languages spoken in Africa had over a hundred of these. On the other hand, English has 44 phonemes, and languages spoken in New Zealand, argued to be the final leg of human migration out of Africa, have just 13.*

Yet, the theory still does not answer the question of how language was born in the first place. Did it happen due to a mutation in our brain about 100,000 years ago? Or was it a slow process that took millions of years to mature? The truth is, we don’t know. We have some strong theories proposed by archaeologists, biologists, and historians. However, none of them are universally accepted.

According to Dr. Dean Falk,* an expert in neuroanthropology, language was initially developed by mothers to reassure their babies that they were not being abandoned, by making facial expressions and calls which eventually became a form of speech. She calls it putting the baby down theory.* On the other hand, Dr. Avram Chomsky,* sometimes referred to as the father of modern linguistics, takes a more simplistic, yet controversial, view stating that a small mutation in the gene of one individual gave them the ability to have complex thoughts and superior planning skills, with language emerging as a by-product. He says this spread to the rest of humankind over the next thousands of years. Of course, not everyone buys into it.*

It is fascinating that we know with certainty so little about the origin of language, and yet today, life seems impossible without it.

Playing a simple game of charades where your teammate fails to understand the most basic hand signals is enough to appreciate the necessity of language that is mutually understood. It would serve no purpose for you to learn Japanese and then travel to India. The value of language, and by extension, speech, can only be realized when the other party is able to comprehend the sound vibrations you make using your larynx that reaches their auditory nerve fibers with the help of the hair cells that convert sound waves into electrical signals.* And vice versa.

This is what the language proficiency exams help you with. The GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, IELTS, and the like are all mechanisms that test your vocabulary, logical reasoning, and quantitative skills. They help you participate in conversations and discussions when you travel to a new country or meet someone visiting your own country. As we mentioned earlier, most universities use these tests as a way to screen students in the first round, even before they read your application and essays.

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These exams are not another hurdle in your journey. They are the invisible enablers that push you to prepare, so you can reap the rewards later on.

Sure. First, you need to narrow down the exams to be taken from the table below.

ExamPurpose# Universities accepting test score# Countries accepting test score
Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)For business schools2,100+110+
Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)For liberal arts, science, math, business schools10,000+ (1,200+ business schools)160+
Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)For programs delivered in English10,000+150+
International English Language Testing System (IELTS)For programs delivered in English2,000+ Including 9,000+ professional institutions140+ (preferred over TOEFL in the U.K.)
Law School Admission Testing Program (LSAT)For law schools300+USA, Canada, Australia
Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)For medical schools130+USA
Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT)For pharmacy schools50+USA
Dental Admission Testing Program (DAT)For dental schools75+USA, Canada

Note: Some schools, like Purdue,* may also require you to take additional language proficiency tests if you wish to apply to a prospective teaching assistantship post admission.

Examiner, Referee, Judge

We cannot cover all the exams, since that would require a separate book in itself. To balance providing guidance while keeping the book within scope, we will use this chapter to walk through the resources needed, approaches to be taken, and techniques to remember what you read for the GRE and TOEFL exams. Both of these are administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which is the world’s largest private non-profit of its kind.*

The GRE began as an experiment concocted by the deans from four Ivy League universities and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1936.* Over the next decade, it was used by a few universities in the U.S. before getting adopted officially by the ETS as a standard assessment in 1949. However, we would need to wait until 1965 for the birth of TOEFL, which began as another experiment by an applied linguistics professor at Stanford University.*

statsToday, the GRE is requested by and accepted by more than 4,500 institutions just in the U.S.* If you weren’t aware, over 1,200 business schools also accept GRE scores as an alternative to GMAT.*

However, if you choose to pursue your MBA abroad, we recommend taking the GMAT since it is specifically targeted at that degree and helps with your job search if you have a commendable score. It is also the exam taken by more than 90% of business school aspirants.*

ETS lets you do a quick check for yourself to see if your desired university accepts TOEFL scores.*

GRE and TOEFL: Rules of the Game


The GRE is an exhausting test that spans almost four hours and has six parts, with a ten-minute break after the third part. It’s made up of two verbal reasoning sections (30 minutes each), two quantitative reasoning sections (35 minutes each), and two analytical writing sections (30 minutes each). The verbal reasoning section has three sub-categories: reading comprehension, sentence equivalence, and text completion.* The quantitative reasoning section tests you on basic mathematical knowledge and your ability to reason with that.

Both the verbal and quant sections score you on a scale of 130 to 170, which is then added up at the end to give you a total score out of 340. Analytical Writing Assessment, or AWA, scores you on a scale of 1–6 with half-point increments.

danger Did you notice that the six sections only add up to three hours and ten minutes? If you did, you’re right to be confused. There is a seventh section in the GRE, which could either be verbal or quantitative reasoning, depending on your luck that day. This is known as the experimental section.

This unscored section is used by the examiners for research purposes. However, you would not know which of the sections is the dummy one. Did we mention it’s unscored? It’s frustrating, we know.


The TOEFL is slightly more merciful and caps at three hours with four sections that test your reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, with a ten-minute break after the second part. Unlike the GRE, each section here takes up different times, with reading being the longest, taking up to 72 minutes.* Also, unlike the GRE, there are no unscored hidden agendas in TOEFL.

All four sections score you on a scale of 0–30, which is all added up at the end to give you a total score out of 120.

To help you get started, the table below contains a list of official and unofficial resources recommended by us based on experience and observation.

Official (and Unofficial) Resources

❖ = Official Resource

  • GRE (overall)

    • ❖ ETS Official POWERPREP Practice Tests

    • Manhattan Prep: 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems

    • Kaplan GRE Practice Tests*

    • Apps: Ready4GRE, ManhattanPrep

  • GRE Verbal

    • ❖ ETS GRE Verbal Reasoning

    • Kaplan’s GRE Verbal Workbook

    • Apps (Vocabulary Building Flashcards): Pixnary, Magoosh, Quizlet

    • Reading Comprehension: Scientific American (Science), The Economist (Business), Arts & Letters Daily (Op-ed)

  • GRE Quant

    • ❖ ETS GRE Quantitative Reasoning Practice

    • ❖ ETS Math Review*

    • ❖ ETS Mathematical Conventions*

    • Kaplan’s GRE Math Workbook

    • Khan Academy Videos (recommended by ETS)*

    • App: GRE Prep by Varsity Tutors*


    • ❖ ETS List of Issue and Argument Questions**

    • ❖ ETS Sample Essay Responses for Issue and Argument Task**

    • Analytical Writing Module by Greenlight*


    • ❖ ETS The Official Guide To The TOEFL Test (book)

    • ❖ TOEFL iBT Interactive Sampler*

    • ❖ TOEFL iBT Free Practice Test*

    • ❖ ETS Official TOEFL iBT Tests (ebook)

    • ❖ TOEFL Go! Official App

    • ❖ TOEFL Practice Online (TPO) Test*

    • NoteFull: Self-study training*

    • YouTube channel: NoteFull TOEFL mastery*

    • Language learning groups on Meetup*

    • App: Duolingo (language learning)

    • Conversations with native English speakers

    • YouTube videos on various accents*

Note that the above resources are only to help you think on the right track. In most cases, the official resources, along with a lot of practice (and a few unofficial resources), are enough.

We recommend taking the GRE before the TOEFL, since the latter involves a lot of the concepts you will learn in the former, and is considered a considerably easier exam. As exhausting as the exam day might be for both of them, the preparation for these tests can be fun, if you want them to be.

Ah, that might have to wait just a little longer. Before you begin your preparation for either of the exams, it’s important for you to take a test first and see where you stand.

Before you decide to summit that mountain peak you see in the distance, you first need to know where you stand and how prepared you are, so you know what to expect.

Consider these exams to be your summit. Websites like Princeton Review and Manhattan offer the ability for you to take a free test, also known as a diagnostic test (or more colloquially, mock test) so you can first assess where you stand today.

We also recommend utilizing one out of the two free tests offered by ETS for GRE.* ETS also offers one free practice test for TOEFL, but you won’t get your scores for the speaking and writing sections, since that requires a human to evaluate. You will still get to see the sample responses.

Once you are done taking the test, let the scores sink in. If you feel like you did not meet your expectations, that’s completely OK! In fact, you are not supposed to. If you did, you wouldn’t be motivated to practice, and we would be sad that the rest of this chapter won’t be of use to you.

Brace Yourself: Data Overload

At this point, you might wonder what a good score is. It is impossible to objectively state that, but it is very possible to make some sweeping generalizations based on past admits.

GRE Scores

First off, this image created by Magoosh is a bird’s-eye view of the average GRE scores for the ten most sought-after graduate programs.*

Source: Average GRE scores of top 10 programs. KapelkeDale, R. GRE Score Range Good GRE Score. Magoosh. (March 30, 2017).

Speaking about making sweeping observations from past admits, here is how Kaplan categorizes historical GRE score data into four ranges.* It is possible that you may fall in different categories for all the three sections.

Verbal ReasoningQuantitative ReasoningAnalytical Writing
Top Scores163–170165–1705.0-6.0
Competitive Scores158–162159–1644.5
Good Scores152–157153–1584
Average Scores151 or below152 or below3.5 or below

We also created our own table based on data published by ETS of test takers who wrote their GRE exams between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2018.* Rather than specifying the range, the table shows the mean and the first standard deviation of the scores for all three sections, across some popular majors. Each major had at least 5,000 test takers, to account for the law of large numbers.*

TOEFL Scores

For TOEFL on the other hand, ETS has provided a range of scores along with their corresponding expertise levels.*

TOEFL iBT LevelsReadingListeningSpeakingWriting

Like GRE, ETS also released the score data for TOEFL. This data is based on the test-takers who took it between January and December 2017. The following table provides the percentile ranks for test-takers who intended to become graduate level students in non-business programs, primarily engineering.* Let’s look at an example. Consider a Scale Score of 28 in the first column. The corresponding row indicates the percentage of students who scored below 28 in each of the sections. You can see that 78% of the test takers scored less than 28 in the Reading section while 94% of the test takers scored less than 28 under the Speaking section. If one scored 28 in all the sections, giving a total of 112 upon 120, the data shows that 95% of the test takers scored less than him/her.

Scale ScoreReadingListeningSpeakingWritingTotal Scale Score

danger Most graduate programs and departments set their own TOEFL requirements. Usually, these will either match or exceed the university’s required minimum.

You can also use—the database of past admits and rejects we introduced in earlier—to look at the GRE and TOEFL scores of past graduates to get a sense of the baseline.

actionNow that you know what a good vs. great score is, set your goal. Is it 320? 330? 340 perhaps?

It’s OK to set 340 as the goal, but know that no school would have that as a threshold. The highest threshold that a university has would be 330, where the verbal-quant split would depend on the major. It’s also worth browsing through the websites of your target universities looking for a cut-off.

Whatever goal you end up setting, you need to begin with the end in mind. If you don’t know what score you want to get, you won’t know how much time you need to allocate to prepare.

So, have you set a goal? Wonderful. We would even say go a step further and send a message to your friend stating this goal, so you have external accountability. The time has come to finally begin your practice.

Nice, that’s the spirit!

PrepScholar specifies that it takes 40 hours to improve one’s score by five points overall.* That’s equivalent to studying for one hour and 20 minutes every day for a month. But we came across many posts from students who say they improved their score by 15 points in a month by putting in the same number of hours.*

In the end, what separates such outliers from the average crowd is not what they study, rather how they study it.

We won’t prescribe a 30-day or 60-day plan for you here, since that has already been done by numerous corporations** that provide study materials. If that isn’t enough, there are detailed blog posts by past students who took the exam, like the one by Dan Mahr* who managed to score an eye-popping 339 in GRE after seven weeks of preparation. Instead, we will expand on the approach you should follow as you begin to prepare, that will set you apart from the crowd.

Consistency is Key

People say practice makes perfect. Not true. We say everyday practice makes perfect. This is thanks to two phenomena that happen in your brain: myelination and slow-wave sleep. Let’s take a small detour into the world of neuroscience.

Some people treat their brain as this mysterious, magical three-pound black box that takes in information from the world and spits out thoughts and words. That was a fair estimate maybe a few hundred years ago, but not anymore. We have learned enough about the brain in the past two centuries to develop treatments for diseases and disorders such as Parkinson’s, epilepsy, insomnia, certain brain tumors, ADHD, and more.* We know enough about the brain to decipher what song someone is listening to by simply using non-invasive devices.* And we also know enough to see what exactly happens when we learn a new piece of information.*

Every thought you’re having right now is being electrochemically powered by almost 100 billion neurons that are firing chemicals called neurotransmitters. You have probably heard about the neurotransmitter dopamine.

When you listen to your favorite song or eat food that you crave, dopamine gets released in your brain and makes you feel rewarded enough to seek out that activity once more.* Like dopamine, your brain has over 200 identified neurotransmitters.

These neurotransmitters are released by the axon terminal of one neuron to the dendrite of another through a bridge called the synapse. If the neuron were a person, the axon would be their body and the dendrite the top of their head. While the information in our brain travels pretty quickly already, myelination helps increase the speed further.

Let’s say you’re dying to become a guitar maestro. When you begin playing the guitar on day one, a specific set of neurons fire together to make that happen. As the days pass by and as your fingers begin to bleed, the set of neurons that tend to fire together are slowly becoming best friends. As they fire more and more together, eventually, they end up conveying the information faster because of something called the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is the coating around the axon* (akin to a warm clothing around the neuron-person). This coating is made up of proteins and lipids and slowly starts wrapping around the axon as it repeatedly fires. By doing so, the neurotransmitter can now travel through the axon body much faster, with lesser distraction.

How do you improve the myelin content around the axons?

Through consistent practice.

Researchers compared the brain scans between expert musicians and ordinary people, and found that there was a direct correlation between practice and the amount of myelin.* The more someone practiced, the more myelin content their brain had. The same applies to your GRE and TOEFL practice, and pretty much any skill you want to master. Rather than cramming five days’ worth of content in one day, spread out your practice so you trigger the set of neurons required more often. And they’ll do the rest for you.

Myelin helps you learn faster, whereas sleep helps you retain what you learned. Sleep fascinated scientists for a long time, but without the right tools to peer into a brain, they couldn’t explain much of what happened. Then 1953 saw a major breakthrough. Sleep was not a passive, homogenous process anymore.

Eugene Aserinsky, then a doctorate student, found out that sleep involved rapid eye movements, especially when his subjects were dreaming.* This gave rise to the REM cycle we all hear about now. Soon enough, another cycle, one that is quieter and gentler, called the non-REM (or NREM), was discovered in 1968.* The NREM cycle was further divided into four stages, and then reduced to three in 2007. One of these three stages, Stage 3, is called the slow-wave sleep (SWS) stage. You might have come across this term through its more popular alias, deep sleep.

Deep sleep has the highest arousal thresholds, meaning it is hardest to wake someone up when they are in this stage of sleep. And if you do manage to wake them up, they would feel extremely groggy (and grumpy). If you were sleep-deprived for a week and finally got a good eight hours in, researchers would see a spike in your deep sleep levels, an indication that this is the stage much needed to make you feel refreshed.* And this stage is also popular for another key function: memory.

When you’re asleep and enter stage 3 of the NREM cycle somewhere in the first half of the night, something mysterious and magical begins to occur between two parts of your brain. Your neocortex, the most advanced part of your brain that differentiates you from a chimpanzee, starts to originate slow oscillations. A few inches away, in the temporal lobe, your hippocampus, a seahorse-like structure that helps with memory (among other things), repeatedly re-activates the information that got encoded in your brain the day prior.* Slowly, there is a movement of this newly encoded memory from your hippocampus to your neocortex, where some of it gets stored for the long-term (with repeated practice, which we’ll get to soon).

It is as if your hippocampus is re-enacting the information you learned the previous day like a movie, and your neocortex is watching this with rapt attention, and encoding it in its own memory system.

danger Sadly, people gravely underestimate the importance of sleep. So much so that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared sleep disorders to be a public health crisis in 2018.*

We know many of you have indulged in all-nighters for exams. We did too. However, the GRE and TOEFL are not your typical exams that can be mastered overnight. It requires learning a monumental amount of information and rigorous practice. Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep here.

If you are looking to improve yours, below are some proven methods:

  • sticking to a routine—something your brain really likes

  • staying away from your phone and laptop screen for an hour, just before you sleep

  • eating dinner that is low in carbs (meaning no rice, bread, or lentils)

  • setting your room temperature to 20 degrees Celsius

  • tracking your sleep via external devices (such as a FitBit or an Oura ring).*

More specifically, SWS is known to help with declarative memory, which involves learning non-emotional facts and concepts.* You know, similar to learning vocabulary words and mathematical concepts for your GRE and TOEFL.

So, long story short, with a combination of daily practice and sufficient sleep, you will be able to ace your exams.

Remember, Remember

We know there is a lot to remember with these types of exams. Guess what though? We also know a lot about how our brain works, which can be used to our advantage. Enter, mnemonic systems.*

A mnemonic (m is silent) device, or a memory device, is any learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval (remembering) in the human memory. Mnemonics make use of elaborative encoding, retrieval cues, and imagery as specific tools to encode any given information in a way that allows for efficient storage and retrieval. Mnemonics aid original information in becoming associated with something more accessible or meaningful—which, in turn, provides better retention of the information.

The oldest known mnemonic technique is called the method of loci* (pronounced low-sigh), where loci is the plural of the word locus, meaning place. You might have heard of this as the mind palace technique if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fanatic.

The method of loci posits that to remember a series of abstract words, you need to attach them to different spaces inside a location that you are very familiar with.

The legend goes that this was first put to practice by a poet named Simonides of Ceos, who was the only survivor of a building collapse during a dinner he attended. This was during the Roman Empire, more than 2,000 years ago. Simonides was able to identify the dead, who were crushed beyond recognition, by remembering where the guests had been sitting.

actionThe next time your parents ask you to go grocery shopping, don’t write down the items on a paper or into your phone. Rather, go to the entrance of your home and slowly begin walking inside. Attach every item to be bought to a specific checkpoint in your home, like a TV set or a kitchen sink. To make it easier, try to visualize a scene involving the item. If one of the items were toothpaste, imagine your sibling brushing their teeth as you walk through the bathroom. Once you’re done, do a mental walkthrough of your home and recollect each of the items. You will be surprised at how effective you are at remembering abstract words and facts by linking them to a place of choice.

Of course, we know you cannot do this for the thousand words that you learn for your exams. The point is, you will be able to retain and recollect better if you use one of the well-established mnemonic techniques as you learn a large amount of information. A few are mentioned below:


This is the most obvious one. Whenever you can, try to link a word to the mental image that it generates in your mind. Let’s take the word cupidity. It’s hard not to think about a cupid flying around with a bow and arrow when you hear this word. That’s good! Now, instead of thinking of a smiling and loving creature, imagine it to be filled with greed because of all the love floating around. That’s it. Cupidity means greed for money or possessions. The next time you see the word, your mind will be primed to think about a greedy cupid. Try to do this for as many words as you can.*


Do you notice that when you’re reciting someone’s phone number, you always chunk the digits together in groups of three or four? It’s not 9479286724; rather, 947 928 6724. This doesn’t have to stop with phone numbers. We can extend this to vocabulary. When you see two words that seem related, try to form a mental association between them so when you think of one, the other comes to mind. For example, the words extinct and extant have opposite meanings. If you learn to chunk such words together in memory, knowing the meaning of one will help you recollect the meaning of the other.


That’s right. New words and facts will stay reluctantly in your memory, constantly trying to escape. However, if you begin reading rich diction where there is a high probability of finding the words you learned, you will experience a brief sense of joy (I know that word!) which will register that word stronger in your memory. Why? Now you have context surrounding the word. We don’t forget words like apple and tree because we come across them on a daily basis. So use the unofficial resources we mentioned in the table earlier to read long articles. This will also serve you well with your reading comprehension sections.

Spaced Repetition

This is not a mnemonic technique per se; rather, it’s a method to retain what you learned for the long-term. It has a fancy name for a simple concept: you remember things better the more times you come across it. The trick here lies in the frequency of revision, according to Gwern Branwen, an independent research and long-form writer.*

[Spaced repetition] essentially says that if you have a question (“What is the fifth letter in this random sequence you learned?”), and you can only study it, say, 5 times, then your memory of the answer (“e”) will be strongest if you spread your 5 tries out over a long period of time—days, weeks, and months. One of the worst things you can do is blow your 5 tries within a day or two. You can think of the “forgetting curve” as being like a chart of a radioactive half-life: each review bumps your memory up in strength 50% of the chart, say, but review doesn’t do much in the early days because the memory simply hasn’t decayed much!

When you learn the word hegemony for the first time today, you should not review it every day for the next five days to retain its meaning. Rather, you need to space it out so that you review it exactly when you’re about to forget it, as shown by the forgetting curve below. This way, you will also reduce the number of words to be reviewed each day.

Forgetting Curve for Newly Learned Information

Now, you must be thinking, how will I know when I’m about to forget something? You don’t. That’s where technology can help.

There is a software called Anki* that lets you create flashcards and displays them to you at intervals set by the algorithm (following the spaced repetition technique). When you review a flashcard, you can choose options such as hard, good, and easy, which sends the app feedback to show you at the right intervals. If that is too much work for you, you can always use ready-made flashcards by apps such as Quizlet and Chegg that contain the word and meaning, but don’t necessarily implement the spaced repetition technique.

danger For the AWA and writing sections, pick one of the 200 questions provided by ETS and time yourself to write the response once every few days. Unless you’re a frequent blogger, it’s not natural or easy for someone to write a cohesive response to a question without practice. Among all the new words and concepts you’re learning and practicing every day, don’t lose sight of the writing (and speaking) sections.

Keep Testing Yourself

This goes without saying. Practicing without testing is akin to wandering in a maze with no idea as to where you’re going.

You can’t improve something you can’t measure.

If you have one month before your exam, you should take a test every five days, or at least once a week. This is so you can monitor your progress and get acquainted with the act of sitting in the same location for four hours and thinking critically.

actionFirst, even before you begin your practice, create a list of links with all the free practice tests you can find online for GRE* and TOEFL.*

Get this out of your way at the beginning when you’re conducting all the research to collect resources. Based on the number of weeks you have before your actual exam, allocate one test for every five days, or every week if you have more than a month to prepare. Ideally, you should spend the day before the main exam either relaxing or doing some very light review of your material.

actionSecond, when you are actually taking the test, try your best to simulate the test day environment by keeping your phone away and sitting in a quiet room.

Both the GRE and TOEFL give you a one-minute break after each section except the third one (or during the half-time), where you can take a ten-minute break. Do your best to follow the same schedule, and use the ten minutes to go to the restroom or eat a protein bar. Strictly stay away from your phone, close all the other applications on your laptop, and mute notifications.* If you take practice tests that don’t have an inbuilt timer, it’s very important that you time yourself using a stopwatch (preferably not your phone).

actionFinally, take time to go over the results of each test to identify the places you were right and wrong.

Remember Dangal, the biographical drama film about how a father trains his two daughters to become world-class wrestling champions? When Aamir Khan, who portrays the protagonist and father, sets out on a mission to improve his daughter’s performance, what does he do? He finds a way to watch all the previous recordings of her fights and notes down the moments where she committed rookie mistakes. He then asks her to watch the same recordings and points the mistakes out to her, so she can avoid them the next time. Assuming this scene mirrored the true story well, that was the turning point in her career.

We’re asking you to be your own Aamir Khan.

Go through the results of every single test to understand your pitfalls. If you see most errors taking place in the text completion section under verbal, it means you haven’t memorized the words and their meanings as well as you thought you did. Open a sheet and note down the feedback you have for yourself based on that test. Try being as detailed as you can. Your focus area over the next week should be the places where you did poorly in the previous exam. What’s the point in learning something you are already good at, as compelling as it might be?

So by constantly testing yourself in a simulated environment and meticulously going over the results to find your weaknesses, you will see an improvement. Eventually, as the test day nears, you will find yourself feeling more and more jittery. The remedy here is to talk to yourself.

When you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, speak confidently about your capabilities.

You can do this.

You’ve come far and put in an incredible amount of effort. If you have been following most (or all) of our suggestions so far, nothing can stop you from seeing that dream score pop up on your screen soon.

Second Time’s a Charm

As you and your peers begin to prepare and write these tests, it is easy to be bogged into a mindset where you constantly compare yourself with others. She got 335 on her practice test, why am I not able to? However, she might not have had to stay up late every night to finish her final semester project. She might not be spending hours as the head of the rotary club. Be kind to yourself. No one else is wearing your shoes, except you.

Your only competitor should be the past version of yourself.

This isn’t me preaching. I’m talking from past experience.

storyIt was February 12, 2016. I remember my heart beating fast, and loudly, inside my head, as I clicked the final button before my score popped in front of my screen. 321. 166. 155. 5. I stared at it for a few minutes before it finally sunk in. Somehow, I had managed to score 10 points less than the scores obtained in all the mock tests taken just days before. I walked in with a goal of 330, and a perfect quant score, but ended up quite far off from it. I was extremely disappointed with myself. I walked out to face my father, waiting in expectation. I muttered it under my breath and walked away. I remember spending that day in my bed, tossing and turning as I thought about the money I wasted. One thing was clear though, I had to take the test again.

I spent the next two months away from anything remotely related to GRE, since I needed some time away to focus on all the activities that I could not due to the exam. I figured I would begin my preparation over the summer again. I came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the month of May for my summer internship through the S.N. Bose Scholarship program. In addition to spending a blissful three months in a new country and working on a challenging project, I also pushed myself to slowly begin preparing by the month of July. It wasn’t until mid-August that I took it up seriously again. Fast-forward two months and I was clicking submit once again, with my heart beating fast and loudly. I closed my eyes and whispered a silent prayer. I opened them to four numbers: 328, 170, 158, and 5. I was relieved. I still wished I could have done better, but it was a sizable improvement, so I knew it was time to call it a day.

Know that some things are just out of your control. It is excruciating to accept that, but you will feel a lot lighter when you do. You can certainly improve the probability to ace your exam with intense practice. However, there is always that tiny, yet real, possibility that you encounter new words, sit next to a noisy air conditioner, or just have a bad day.

It’s OK. If you feel you can do better, try again.

It is important to set goals for yourself.

However, it is more important to know when you’ve done enough and call it a day.

Not because you realize you can’t reach the goal, but because you decide that the effort required to reach there is not worth the destination.

I could have tried a third time, and maybe crossed 330. In exchange, though, I had to spend another $200 and possibly dozens of hours going over the material again. I hope you won’t be in a situation where you need to make that call. However, if you have to, just know that if I can do it, so can you.

Student Testimonials

I made complete use of the official material by ETS: from their books to sample questions to the mock tests. Aside from that, I used the Manhattan 5 lb. book and two mobile apps—Quizlet and Magoosh—for building my vocabulary. Finally, I also read The New York Times and other fiction novels I liked.

The bulk of my preparation was during my third-year summer internship, where I prepared one section every morning, alternating between quant and verbal. I timed my sessions and tracked my accuracy. I spent more time on the questions I didn’t get right, detecting patterns and improving one cluster at a time. I realized I was struggling with reading comprehension, so I practiced more of it from the Manhattan 5 lb. book. For AWA, I only practiced the questions specified on the ETS website and timed myself every time I wrote an essay.

I simulated the exam environment and took six mock tests to ensure that my body was used to sitting down and thinking for 4 hours. Apart from the ones provided by ETS, I also took other free tests from the Princeton review, Kaplan, and Magoosh.

—Anirudh Swaminathan, University of California, San Diego

If you want to take the TOEFL, it is very important to first get familiar with the TOEFL format. An excellent resource to familiarize yourself with the exam is Magoosh. The video lessons and practice tests helped me devise strategies, particularly for the writing and speaking sections of the exam. Here, a person’s performance greatly benefits from having a good idea of the exam structure and various expectations, in addition to being generally good with the language.

Specifically, in the writing section, Magoosh helped me avoid wrong answer traps and the numerous practice tests honed my approach towards the tasks. I had ample time to complete the listening and reading sections. The reading section tests our comprehension skills and critical thinking. To do our best on test day, it’s a good idea to familiarize ourselves with these types of questions so that we can decide more quickly what information to look at and how to interpret it.

—Sidhaarth V, Virginia Tech

Final Thoughts on Competitive Exams

Language is one of the most complex and essential of human inventions. Standardized tests like the GRE and TOEFL give you an opportunity to deepen your mastery of this invention. Think of these tests as invisible enablers that push you to prepare and help you acclimate to an English-speaking environment. In this chapter, we spoke specifically about the GRE and TOEFL, both administered by the non-profit ETS.

Before beginning your preparation, it’s important to know where you stand. Take a diagnostic test first. Use the various tables from the chapter, and more you can find online, to understand where you stand and set a goal for yourself. You have to begin with the end in mind. Once you do that, collect all the resources you need over the next few weeks or months to prepare. Don’t just stop with official text books. Take advantage of the free mobile apps out there that have pre-built materials.

We didn’t prescribe a day-by-day plan for you here because no two people are built the same. Rather, we want you to follow some best practices that will set you apart. First, practice every single day, even if it’s only for 20 minutes. Science has proven time and again that this is the key to mastery. Use mnemonic techniques to remember abstract facts and concepts. Correlate words with images. Combine similar sounding words together. Read scientific journals. Find ways to retain what you read using the proven technique of spaced repetition.

Most importantly, keep testing yourself. You can’t improve something you can’t measure. Take inspiration from Aamir Khan and meticulously pore over your test results to find your Achilles’ heel. Spend the following week improving in that area. You will greatly increase the probability of getting your dream score with these best practices. However, even the best of the best cannot escape the tiny possibility of messing up. It’s OK. I know it feels soul-crushing, but you have the option to take it a second or third time. Just balance that with the time and money you have at your disposal.

A Little Reflection on Exam Prep

thinkDid you take a mock test?

What measures are you taking to improve your sleep?

Which memory technique seems most helpful to you?

How can you make preparation for the exam more fun?

Crafting Your Resume27 minutes, 3 links

A resume needs to be a living, breathing document of who you are, what you’ve done, and what you hope to do. We know, that’s a lot of pressure. That is why, in this chapter, we will be guiding you through the process of constructing a resume step-by-step.

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